July 8 marked the official public release of two mobile applications, Crabifier and BioMon, developed by research groups from the University’s Technologies for Biodiversity Use and Conservation Unit. The launch event, which took place at Br. Andrew Gonzalez Multipurpose Hall, featured a panel discussion as well as demonstrations of the new technologies.
Describing the applications as “modern technologies to stave off the loss of biodiversity”, Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation Dr. Raymond Tan commended the societal relevance of the projects in his opening remarks. He further stressed:, “We have plenty of catching up to do, but there are some early signs of progress in the Philippines…Part of the solution is science and technology for progress.”
Reliably identifying crabs
Crabifier was developed by a multidisciplinary team from the Practical Genomics Laboratory, which is headed by Dr. Ma. Carmen Lagman, a Full Professor from the College of Science.
Founded by Biology Department faculty Dr. Chona Abeledo and Prof. Courtney Ngo from the Software Technology Department of the College of Computer Studies, the application uses the phone camera to measure and distinguish among three similar-looking crab species at their juvenile stage—Scylla serrata, S. tranquebarica, and S. olivacea. This is intended to aid fisherfolk in correctly picking out the giant mangrove crab, S. serrata, which is sought after in the market for its fast growth rate.
S. serrata can grow to a maximum width of 147.3 millimeters and can weigh up to 2.86 kilograms; in comparison, S. tranquebarica and S. olivacea crabs are smaller and weigh less at maturity. As crablets, however, the three species are difficult to differentiate, so selecting them can be hit-or-miss and easily fallible.
Abeledo recalled the fishermen’s accounts that stimulated the idea for the project, “[The fishermen] asked me, ‘Bakit niyo prinoproblema yung malaki? Mas malaking problema yung mga maliit…Diyan kami nalulugi.’”
(“Why are you concerned over the mature ones? The young are a bigger problem, causing us to incur losses.”)
During the panel discussion, Abeledo shared that matching molecular genomics or DNA markers with morphological markers or external features of the crabs enabled “finding subtle patterns” that would set apart one species from the other. After pinpointing the frontal lobe or crown of the crab as the key difference, she enlisted the help of Ngo to automate the image analysis process.
The latest iteration of Crabifier uses 10 measurement ratios of the crabs’ physical characteristics for identifying the species. According to Ngo, the app’s convoluted neural network model was also retrained to adjust to how the lighting on-site differed from the conditions in the laboratory.
Crowdsourcing biodiversity data
BioMon is a citizen science initiative that Dr. Neil Aldrin Mallari, head of the Center for Conservation and Innovation, described as “Waze for the forest or environment”. This biodiversity monitoring technology was conceived to transform the paper-based system to records stored digitally in a database and more streamlined for public use.
In a promotional video, the app was envisioned as a solution to the lack of data on local terrestrial biodiversity. Further, Mallari revealed during the panel discussion that much of the old “inventories [on protected areas] were invented”—such fabricated documentation had little use in keeping track of the environmental situation.
BioMon relies on citizen-reported data to collate information about the different species present in an area, as well as the occurrence of threats or harmful activities, such as kaingin or slash-and-burn farming as a cited example. It gets the local community involved in monitoring the status of and changes in an ecosystem.
Mallari also highlighted the georeferencing or location tagging aspect, which provides records on how many times and where a species was spotted in the last week, for instance. The app demonstration further showed a note-adding feature for comments and descriptors like “early secondary forest”—details that would otherwise be difficult to observe from a picture alone.
“When you register, you own that microsite…The [uploaded data] will be confined to your own community…and would only be shared if you choose to submit the data to DENR.” Mallari clarified that the data would remain private and would only be accessible to the user in response to concerns raised regarding data privacy, though he encouraged sharing the information to help build a more comprehensive biodiversity database.
With app deployment and further extensions or developments on the horizon, the innovators concluded by recognizing the “need for capacity building” in local communities, involving not just “sharpening the pana” or developing tools but also sharpening the users of these technologies. As remarked by Lagman, “Doing what we do well [in the laboratory] is not what is needed, but responding to needs on the ground.”